I grew up in the place in which I still live, more or less — the mining town of South Kirkby in the heart of the Yorkshire coalfield. Kirkby was a great place for a kid to grow up in. Big enough to have a high street, market, cinema, swimming baths, sports centre, youth clubs, football teams, recreation grounds and parks; small enough so you knew everyone. And nowhere in the town was more than a five or ten minute walk away from the countryside where me and my mates spent most of our time, bird-nesting, rabbiting, ferreting, coursing, kicking-off with farmers & landowners and generally pissing about.
Kirkby had two pits, South Kirkby and Frickley. My Dad and Grandad worked at Frickley pit. My uncle Clive, my Dad’s twin, worked at Kirkby. Most men I knew or knew of worked at one or other of the pits. There were over 5000 jobs at those pits in the 70s. The NUM branches at those pits were among the most militant in the country. Even when the rest of the industry was at work they were likely to be on strike — especially if the sun was out.
A turbulent, radical, confrontational political streak — rooted in the pits — ran through the community. It was a kind of politics that didn’t shrink from violence. I first encountered this in 1978/9, when me and my mates belatedly discovered punk and began attending our first gigs, many of which were organised by Rock Against Racism. At a RAR organised Mekons gig in Castleford some drunken racists — big, hard, beer-bellied blokes — burst in and set about some students. Some of the SWP-affiliated lads from our group led the retaliation and the boneheads got a severe shoe-ing. After that night me and my mates joined — or at least became fellow-travellers with — the SWP.
Steve Ely – then
In the late 70s/early 80s our multi-tribal RAR/SWP group — schoolkids like me, students, journalists, miners, engineers, office workers, factory workers and unemployed, in our respective guises as punks, skinheads, grebos and so on, attended demonstrations, picket lines, festivals and gigs all over the country, watching bands as varied as the Gang of Four, the UK Subs, the Clash, the Au Pairs, the Banshees, Stiff Little Fingers, the Specials, Madness, Penetration, the Jam and Motorhead. Political violence was never far away at these events, with the neo-Nazis of the British Movement, the National Front, Column 88 and the original BNP being our main adversaries.
The far-right had a particularly strong presence in Leeds. I remember being part of a counter demo that successfully disrupted a National Front rally there in 1980, and being part of a group — with local ‘West Indians’ and Sikhs — that fettled the rash of Bulldog vendors in the town centre one Saturday morning. There was an ongoing running battle with the British Movement — disrupting meetings, tearing down posters — in particular that seemed to last years.
The far-right used to recruit and sell papers at Leeds United’s home games and there was a nasty racist streak in the crowd at Leeds during the 1980s. This posed a problem for South Kirkby based socialists, as the town was a hot-bed of Leeds United support (our next door neighbour Pete Walton ran the local supporters club, which had over 600 members — in a town of less than 15,000) and inevitably, some of the Elland Road-centred organised racism began to bleed into Kirkby, with some locals joining the far-right groups. This situation was further complicated by the fact that a couple of our SWP/RAR group were also members of Leeds’s notorious hooligan Service Crew, which became associated with the political right in the mid-80s, although the lads in question were — and remained — militantly red. They just enjoyed a fracas.
This football/hooligan/political militancy/political violence crossover became a story of its own during the Miners’ Strike, when, in November 1984, the Frickley Athletic vs Stalybridge Celtic first round F.A. Cup tie in neighbouring South Elmsall degenerated into some of the most sustained fighting I’ve ever seen in any context. Three hundred Man U hooligans doing some strike-tourism entered the ground chanting ‘Arthur Scargill is a wanker’ — and got absolutely battered, as you might imagine. No police were stationed in the ground for the match, as their presence would have been too inflammatory, so the fighting went on for about half an hour completely unchecked. When the police finally arrived — en masse and in full riot gear — it got worse.
I’ve written some poems about this whole period in my book, Englaland. In the dedication to the first poem, Jim Nightingale is a friend of mine who inducted me, as a teenager, into the SWP/RAR. John Clark was a school mate and part of our little gang, who died tragically young from a brain haemorrhage.
* * *
Inglan is a bitch
Noh mattah wat dey say,
come wat may,
we are here to stay
Linton Kwesi Johnson, ‘It Dread Inna Inglan (For George Lindo)’, Dread Beat an’ Blood.
1. Boxing Day, 1979
For Jim Nightingale, in memory of John Clark
Having pissed away our Christmas money
getting under-age hammered in the Plough,
Red Jim’s party in Centre Street called.
Clarky got the invite through their Col,
a combat-jacketed, Trotskyite journo
who worked for the Sheffield Star. We were punks,
two years too late, as early as we could get there,
angry, attitudinal, raw with unfocused rebellion:
ripe for evangelisation.
Dread Beat an’ Blood
was shaking down the walls from fifty yards
away. The door opened to laughter
and spurting lager, a smell I guessed was dope.
Strange things were afoot: the front room was postered
like Wolfie Smith’s bedroom – like my bedroom –
Marx and Marley, the stencilled fist
from Power in the Darkness; there were men
wearing suit-coats over jeans and t-shirts,
women casually bra-less in loose-knit
mohair sweaters; lit candles in wine bottles;
people actually drinking wine, from TV’s
long-stemmed glasses. ‘Beer Mon?’ from the kitchen –
a real-life rasta, handing out Heineken.
And in the ransacked pantry, the night’s
stunning revelation – a yard long pack
of Buitoni spaghetti, exotic
Who lives in a house like this?
We cornered the cans and set to supping
at the kitchen table, where at length
Jim found us, and put us through our paces,
discussing the Clash and TRB,
Trident, Thatcher and the National Front,
before finally getting down to it —
Marx and revolution. Softened up
by Clarky’s Socialist Workers and Neil Spencer’s
pink NME, we weren’t found wanting.
We signed on the line and a fortnight later,
boarded the bus to Castleford Civic Centre
for our first live gig: Rock Against Racism,
the Mekons with Galaxy supporting.
Galaxy were disco, four handsome black men
in sequined shirts pastiching Kool and the Gang.
Col Clark clenched his fist in solidarity
and shouted at the soundcheck — ‘Dillinger!
Big Youth!’ The lead singer grinned and shook his head —
‘We’re R&B mon, we don’t do reggae!’
Some beer-guts in flares crashed the concert
to kick-off with the freaks. Skinny socialists
converged and battered them out of the exits.
It was an eye-opener.
The paper every week,
‘Support the Steel Workers, General Strike Now’;
The monthly journal, International Socialism,
‘Lessons from the Revolution in Iran’;
Anti-Nazi League pamphlets, ‘The National Front
is a Nazi Front, Smash the National Front’:
a few months later, in Chapeltown, we did,
breaking through the cops’ cordon and piling
into the parade of sieg-heiling boneheads,
Sikhs and ‘West Indians’ fighting beside us,
dragging loud-hailered Webster from the back
of his PA-ed flatback, putting in the boot:
Black and white — unite and fight.
The back wall
of Harrow Street’s outside lavs,
a blank red-brick canvas
facing the cop-shop,
‘that’ Billy Johnson emulsioned
THE POLICE KILLED BLAIR
in square letters three foot high.
(He’d intended to paint BLAIR PEACH,
but ran out of wall.)
Blair Peach: teacher,
activist, man of letters:
NUT, ANL, SWP.
A St. George’s Day rally
in the heart of Sikh Southall,
NF freedom of speech/intimidation
underwritten by the council
and the Special Patrol Group,
who clubbed Peach to death
and left his body on the street.
Eight thousand Sikhs
paid their respects at his open coffin.
A year or so later
on Harehills’ immigrant streets,
we were jumped by British Movement skins
as we tore down their posters
near the Fforde Green pub.
Protecting my face,
I was gashed in the palm
by a broken bottle,
as we fought for our lives
in a running skirmish
along Roundhay Road.
At school on Monday,
I wore that scar with pride.
But I wasn’t the weekend’s
Gelderd-Ender Mick Grant
was sporting a proper shiner.
Q. How’d you get that, Mick?
A. Fighting niggers in Leeds.
Shoot that nigger!
NF, BM. Column 88.
Elland Road was like a Klan Rally.
Steve Ely – now